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  • Kelly Dunn

Rethinking Leave No Trace

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

These principles are near and dear to our hearts. But, is it time for us to take a second look?

camping in backcountry
Photo courtesy of Ambassadr Nahla Gedeon Achi

Dispose of waste properly. Respect wildlife. Leave what you find. These are just a few of the rules drilled into every backcountry hiker. With a planet in peril–-as evidenced by the severe wildfires striking California and Oregon and disastrous oil spill in Mauritius–-protecting the natural world through the principles of Leave No Trace (LNT) seems more pertinent than ever.

Yet in recent months, Americans have also borne witness to events that have illuminated the persuasive issues of societal inequality and systemic racism in the outdoors. While these topics seem wildly unrelated, we’re here to discuss the intersections of these two entities, noting how one narrative of environmentalism may marginalize other communities.

The History of Leave No Trace

On August 2nd, 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act. This act catalyzed a network of roads that allowed Americans to travel across the country, forging into the backcountry and beyond. By the summer of 1960, about 90 percent of Americans reported to have participated in some form of outdoor recreation. Yet, while these highways increased access to the outdoors, they also brought about a new series of challenges for land management organizations. In particular, as outdoor sites became more popular, recreationalists began to see their beloved trails filled with more visitors, and with that, more pollution.

This pollution led to growing concerns about environmental preservation. As such, the 1960s were filled with legislative initiatives to protect the environment among them, the 1964 National Wilderness Act and 1960 Clean Water Act. Soon after, federal agencies like the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management began to develop informational pamphlets educating the public on Wilderness Ethics, No-Trace Camping, and Wilderness Manners. 

Finally, in an effort to formally institutionalize these values, the U.S. Forest Service approached the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to create an educational curriculum for outdoor visitors. Part of this curriculum included a LNT program, which eventually grew into its own non-profit in 1994. This program taught individuals how to engage with the environment more responsibly, and showed budding outdoor enthusiasts how to preserve the natural world that they loved. 

Why “Leave No Trace” is a Problem

Despite positive intent, LNT has inadvertently perpetuated a call-out culture that has impacted historically marginalized communities. 

Corey Buhay, environmental researcher and outdoorswoman, has heard about many of these events. These include stories of Luiseño Indians being shamed for their annual, traditional harvest of poppies during the California super bloom and black hikers chewed out by a woman who claimed that the palm fronds their children brought to play with were invasive species.

Danielle Williams, founder of Melanin Base Camp, has shared similar experiences. She noted how anxiety-inducing it was for her to share a photo of sitting on a dead tree, beaming as she was half-way through her first hike since ankle surgery. She later deleted, it “cringing at the thought that someone on social media might misinterpret this photo and attack me for stepping off the trail and violating Leave No Trace.”

While these situations are anecdotal and may be the exception rather than the rule, realizing that this treatment exists at all prompts a need to reexamine the impact of education like LNT. These issues can be further exacerbated by online social media platforms; unmoderated Instagram accounts like @publiclandshateyou are full of users who use targeted images and shaming culture to discourage individuals from interacting with the environment in nontraditional ways. What’s worse is that this type of intervention may do no more harm than help; research shows that shaming is rarely an effective means to change behavior

This isn’t to say, however, that individuals are the root cause of these issues. Rules automatically institute power and hierarchy: there are those who enforce expectations, and others who follow them. Unfortunately, the environmental organizations that stewarded these rules came from a single perspective. Their popularity inevitably forced other communities to follow that status quo and, in doing so, abandon their own traditional ways of living.

This idea of what is “normal” is particularly concerning given how land has been transferred throughout history. When considering that these spaces were once taken from Indigenous people who were able to sustainably live off the land for thousands of years, we ought to question who has the right to declare how land should be used and treated. Interestingly enough, recent studies have shown how natural spaces have become more resilient as a result of indigenous practices and human intervention; controlled burns, for instance, help suppress large wildfires while also facilitating the growth of understory plants like bear grass and hazel. This isn't to say that we should all set out to burn areas of our back yard, but simply to point out that LNT principles offer only a starting point for outdoor education.

While the official nonprofit Leave No Trace notes that its principles are “not about perfection” and serve as ”a toolkit to learn from, depending on people’s environment, age, personal ethics,” it is unfortunate to see how much of the outdoor community has interpreted these principles as absolute truth.

A More Inclusive Future

While Executive Director of LNT Dana Watts has noted that the online shaming of these practices has been disappointing,” change can be made.

For one, people must recognize that not everyone grew up with the same privilege and education about the outdoors. Due to differing cultural expectations and economic barriers, access to the outdoors for people of color has always been limited. This isn’t to say that hikers who litter at campsites should be congratulated, but when witnessing a questionable event, onlookers should consider how to engage in discourse, addressing the issue in a constructive rather than critical manner. With that, individuals must realize that what the lessons they’ve been taught (oftentimes by white environmentalists) may not be the best for the environment, as well as consider what other cultural and social dynamics could be at play. 

Perhaps most importantly (and also most troublesome), LNT shoulders the responsibility of environmental protection on individuals. In order to create a more sustainable future, outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists alike need to realize that the need for environmental protection stems from larger systemic issues. Working to institute better policies that serve to uplift BIPOC communities while also protecting land is crucial in order to work towards a sustainable future.

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